Saturday, August 7, 2010

Two guys walk into a liquor store ...

It's one of those well-stocked discounters you typically find along a Jersey divided highway like Route 1 or 73, or say just off Route 287, like in Boonton or somewhere.

The two guys are in their mid-20s. They plant themselves in front of the cold box for a few minutes, eying the various craft brews on the shelves, mulling a selection. They touch a sixpack, stop, then reach for another.

They plainly can't make up their minds. Too much to choose from. Life is good in a world of plenty.

This actually happened, Friday in Southern Ocean County, a place in New Jersey that's not exactly at the fore of the craft beer renaissance. Yet the selection is healthy, well beyond Guinness and Sam Adams.

But the point is, similar scenarios play out over and over these days at liquor stores where the staff is seasoned in the new world order of beer: Southern Tier, Southampton, Founders, Climax, Cricket Hill, Brooklyn, Dogfish Head, Victory, Troegs, Sly Fox, Otter Creek and Wolaver's, Rogues, Terrapin, Flying Fish, Ramstein, River Horse, Lost Abbey, Bear Republic, Ommegang, Yards ...

So, when the Brewers Association put out mid-year figures this week that said dollar sales for craft brewed beer jumped 12 percent in the first half of 2010, compared to 9 percent growth during that same period last year, and that the volume of craft brewed beer sold grew 9 percent from January through June of this year, compared to 5 percent growth in the first half of 2009, well, that was cause to celebrate.

And honestly, it's a moment to stop and think of those two 20-somethings who hovered over craft beer section at the liquor store, trying to make up their minds in that world of plenty (and 10-dollar sixpacks).

As a generation, a demographic, they have enjoyed a tremendously wide selection of brews since the day they could legally drink beer. As such they're the ones helping to power the uptick in sales, eschewing brand loyalty, their parents' beer, and following curiosity amid the vast sea of choice. (OK, so it's also said that in a down economy, people drink more. That figures into things, too.)

Anyone who took up homebrewing back in the early 1990s and kicked Bud, even Heineken, to the curb, remembers having to put up with explaining the new beer he was drinking to his old guard friends who reckoned beer was a straw-colored, everyman beverage that shouldn't be too fancy. (And god forbid that new brew had a settling of yeast in the bottom of the unopened bottle. That didn't translate at all.) Blame it on the fact that, for baby boomers, Bud, Miller and Coors were, by and large, the benchmarks for beer. Not homebrews, nor microbrews.

So, coming back to the original premise: The surge in craft beer sales and volume reflects a handing off of the baton to another generation of beer drinkers, a younger set that enjoys something its older brethen with need for flavor had to wait 20 years for.

Interest in better beer, variety ... It has become the rule, rather than the exception.

The U.S. now boasts 1,625 breweries — an increase of 100 additional breweries since July of 2009 — and the highest number in 100 years. A century ago in 1910, consolidation and the run-up to Prohibition had reduced the number of breweries to 1,498. (Source: Brewers Association)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Artisan's Oktoberfest and Ramstein kegs

On a hot summer afternoon on the last day of July, brewer Dave Hoffmann was turning out a fall seasonal beer at Artisan's Brewery and related this item:

The Toms River brewpub's 2010 Oktoberfest is set for Friday, Oct. 8. (That date is a correction from what we previously posted. Beer writer Kurt Epps, who also serves as emcee for the event, wasn't available for the original Oct. 1 date, so Artisans moved things to the 8th.)

Artisan's (now into its eight month removed from its former name Basil T's) draws a big crowd with this multi-course beer dinner, of which, as you can guess, the house-brewed fall Märzen (which Dave was working on) is the centerpiece.

Dave says he's putting Artisan's Oktoberfest beer on tap on Sept. 18, the same day that the 2010 Oktoberfest kicks off in Munich. (In the past, he has waited a week or so.) This year, by the way, marks the bicentennial of Germany's Oktoberfest, which as we all know originated as the commemoration of the nuptials of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen.

Meanwhile, up in Butler, the folks at High Point Brewing are gearing up for the debut of the 2010 edition of their Ramstein Oktoberfest. The 2009 version of the brew scored the top rating from BeerAdvocate, and it's annually been a hot-ticket seasonal for the brewery.

As is its tradition with the Oktoberfest brew, High Point will tap a ceremonial oak keg during its September open house and brewery tour. That's set for 2-4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 11. By the way, next Saturday's August open house (2-4 p.m. Aug. 14) will feature an imperial pilsner that's worth the trip to Butler. Bring your growlers.

Also, last month High Point signed on with keg-supplier MicroStar to gain greater control of its draft beer operations. It's a key business step and probably best explained this way: Say you own a brewery and you own all your of kegs, and you have to wait for returns to fill new ones. There isn't always a happy balance to what goes out and what comes back for cleaning and filling, so signing on with a supplier ensures kegs are available to get beer to the marketplace and keep business on track.

High Point relies heavily on its draft beer side, since the brewery puts only three of its many beers in 12-ounce bottles (Blonde, Classic Wheat and Winter Wheat), even though it has plans to begin bottling some seasonal brews. Consider, too, that the brewery's business was up 30 percent last year. Given those factors you can see why striking a deal MicroStar matters.


That new Iron Hill tank

Call it a birthday present to the brewery and another canvas for the artistes who work there.

Even before Iron Hill was throwing that one-year anniversary party last month in Maple Shade, the folks there were doing something for the next year and beyond, as well as giving the two guys who create the beer – head brewer Chris LaPierre and assistant brewer Jeff Ramirez – more leeway to practice their craft.

A 30-barrel fermenter was installed on the penultimate day of June, muscling up the brewpub's capacity by about 25 percent. (Iron Hill opened with six single fermenters and a double; the new addition gives them two doubles.)

More tank space, yes, but Chris sizes things up a little differently.

"I don't really look at it as a boost in capacity though. It would certainly boost our capacity if our goal were to crank out as much beer as possible," Chris said via email today. "It's more about making it a little easier on Jeff and I to keep up, and more so about making it possible to brew more specialty lagers and slow-fermenting beers."

Like a brace of brews fresh to Iron Hill's Maple Shade digs: The Cannibal (Belgian golden ale) and Saison (Blegian farmhouse), both national gold medal winners for Iron Hill that need two months' fermenter time. "That's why we haven't brewed The Cannibal or Saison in this location until now," Chris says. "The new tank is what made those beers possible."

In the run-up to the 2010 Great American Beer Festival (Sept. 16-18 in Denver), The Cannibal and Saisaon will get tapped next Wednesday along with two other brews, Caprice (American Belgian ale) and Hopfenweizen (Bavarian wheat), all of which figure into Iron Hill's GABF entries for this year.

Contests aside, you might think it's the sign of a red-hot business to be expanding before the first anniversary. But, again, there's a business logic at play here.

"We usually undersize our breweries by a bit when we first open, figuring it's easier and more financially sound to buy and install a new tank if things are busy, than to sell and remove one if its not," Chris points out. "Also its much better for morale to install a new one than take one out!"

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Turtle Stone Brewing, Update

Location, location, location.

It's a holy grail for businesses, and it's also what Turtle Stone Brewing, the South Jersey brewery on the drawing boards, is working to get its arms around right now on its way toward joining the ranks of New Jersey brewing enterprises.

Some recap:
Turtle Stone is the brainchild of Ben Battiata and Becky Pedersen of Cumberland County. The two have acquired a refurbished brewhouse and some fermenters in a dash to bring their vision of a second production brewery in South Jersey closer to reality. (Flying Fish in Cherry Hill is the other production brewer.)

In a perfect world, we'd be drinking Turtle Stone's stout and honey blonde ale right now (an earlier target launch date was last spring; but that fell out of reach after a site in Vineland that Ben and Becky had their eyes on was sold before they could get a jump on it). But remember: location, location, location.

Ben says the site they have been flirting with in Vineland's industrial park the past several months may not be the best fit in the long run, when you consider growth.

Specifically, the site isn't a clean match for the brewing equipment, posing the issue of having to do a lot of interior work to bring things up to par, only to potentially outgrow the space sooner than later.

So Ben and Becky are making sure they've done the best possible site search, and that now includes possibilities in downtown Vineland (nearby Millville was also in the mix, we seem to recall). Ben says he'd like to be able to buy a building to house the brewery; the banks they've gone to for financing have expressed a preference for that, too.

So for now, their pub system brewhouse is still in storage in Oregon, while the accompanying 15-barrel fermenter and bright tanks wait in Vineland at that industrial park site that has long loomed in the picture. (Also, the brewery's business logo is getting an overhaul, Ben says.)

And their eyes are on the fall.

Ben's optimistic more pieces to the mosaic will be added, and that their vision of a brewery will not only emerge clearer, but take several more steps closer to becoming the next New Jersey brewing enterprise.